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KOKOMO, Ind. (AP) — Northwestern students used to look forward to lunch every Thursday, when restaurant-style fried chicken and French fries would be served.
But this year, "chicken days" consist of three baked chicken tenders covered in whole-grain breading. The fries are baked too, and that's not the only healthy change that's hit school menus.
"They took away the fried chicken. They took away all the good food and gave us healthy food," said Northwestern High School ninth grader Ariel Bollnow, joking that she'd like to "have a long talk" with Michelle Obama about her concerns with the new school food.
The first lady advocated for the federal Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which fully went into effect for the 2013-14 school year. Schools have gradually worked to implement new school lunch menus in recent years, complying with restrictions on how many calories can be served in a meal, the levels of sodium, sugar and fat in the food, and how many servings of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, protein and dairy must be available to students.
This year, all snacks sold in cafeterias' a la carte lines, school vending machines and any other place during school hours also must meet the federal healthy food guidelines.
Northwestern food services director Renee' Hullinger told the Kokomo Tribune (http://bit.ly/1sLKV6q ) the "smart snack" phase of the federal regulations has been the most challenging to follow.
"With the new regulations on all foods sold in schools, the nutrition stipulations are so strict that our hands are tied in what we can sell," she said, noting that new kitchen equipment was needed to replace deep fryers that can no longer be used. "The government made all these changes, but they didn't give us money to do the job."
Part of the difficulty comes from a lack of available products that meet the nutrition requirements. The vendors school food service departments previously worked with are struggling to come up with modified versions of their food products. Hullinger said right now, the snack options at Northwestern are approximately one-tenth of what they used to be.
"Manufacturers have worked as quickly as they could to change to meet these new regulations. There's so few foods meeting these regulations, and we're all trying to get them," she said. "A lot of these foods weren't available at the beginning of the school year."
"Our vending has plummeted," Hullinger continued, though she added it is too early in the year to have an accurate count on how their sales will compare to last year.
Other school corporations reported similar difficulties in simply finding enough qualified snacks to keep their shelves stocked.
Kokomo School Corp. has lost some of its outside vendors who used to serve food at the high school. So far, Pizza Hut is the only one that has been able to meet the federal nutrition guidelines, and it's been a long process, said food services director Jack Lazar.
"They really worked well with us on more than a year of planning to get an acceptable (product)," Lazar said. "Where the vendors are running into trouble is the sodium or the saturated fat."
Snack items and side dishes sold a la carte must have 230 milligrams of sodium or less, and entrée items sold a la carte are limited to 480 milligrams of sodium per serving. School food cannot have any trans-fat, and saturated fat must count for less than 10 percent of an item's calories.
There are specific times when exemptions from the guidelines are allowed. The Kokomo Area Career Center's culinary arts program runs the Kokomo Confectioners Company, and the treats sold there do not have to comply with the federal regulations because the store operates outside school hours. Similarly, concession stands at athletic events are exempt, and Indiana schools are allowed to have two fundraisers a year that sell food items that don't meet the school food nutrition standards.
Kokomo Schools communications director Dave Barnes said administrators get more questions from parents about the school food now, but they are more accepting when they realize it's a federal mandate.
"We saw this coming and even with the sodium, we've been cutting back every year," Lazar said, adding that Kokomo took out its deep fryers about 10 years ago. "We've really been proactive on this. But product-wise it's difficult for these companies."
Taylor Schools has drastically changed what it serves students this year because of the new smart snack regulations.
"We basically had to revamp the entire snack line because of it," said Taylor food services director Michelle Crone.
At many schools, vending machines that previously carried candy bars, Little Debbie treats and chips now are stocked with granola bars, whole-grain cookies and crackers, fruit snacks, trail mix and baked chips, usually in smaller bags. Pop is no longer sold in the vending machines or lunch lines, and it's been replaced with zero-calorie flavored waters, fruit juice and smaller bottles of Gatorade or Powerade.
Crone agreed with other food service departments that the sodium limit is a hang-up for most snack companies. She also has noticed the snack packages are getting smaller in order to comply with the regulations, but they're sold for the same price as the bigger portions.
Overall, though, the healthier alternatives have been a positive switch for Taylor, Crone said.
"They came up with a whole-wheat cookie that is to die for. Our kids are eating them like crazy," she said. "We're actually doing better than we did last year. You hear some complaints at first, but kids are just so versatile that they find something else they like."
Parents also have had to adjust the snacks they can send to school for their children's birthdays or class parties, as Taylor Elementary School has tried to align with the healthy food regulations. Principal Jeremy Luna said the school is accommodating parents in making the transition.
"It's been a slow transition because we still have some parents trying to bring those things in, but we work with them," Luna said. "If a parent came in with a bunch of cupcakes, I know I'm supposed to say 'no,' but I don't want to crush any kid's birthday dreams. Because it's a relatively new policy, we're willing to work with them."
The new snack regulations have been added to the student handbook, and reminders will be sent out on the school's automated phone calls to parents. Luna said one student's parents sent in cupcakes for the class in the first week of school, but they were willing to provide a healthier snack the next day instead, once they found out about the new rule.
As with any change, it takes time to adjust.
While Bollnow and her friends, Carleigh Feldhouse, Ellie Simms and Mackenzie Fraker, could list plenty of items they miss from their school lunch line - macaroni and cheese, brownies, big pretzels with cheese, waffle fries, Rice Krispy treats and pop - they also were happy to fill up on watermelon and grapes along with the baked chicken tenders served last Thursday.
"I'm kind of used to it. I think it's good they have healthy food because so many kids are overweight," Feldhouse said. "The one thing I don't like is that you can only get a certain number of calories. Some of us have bigger appetites."
Information from: Kokomo Tribune, http://www.ktonline.com
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